Wouldn’t we all kill to be invited to a dinner party at Sue Mengers’? But, as Bette Midler puts it so plainly to the auds at her solo show, “Of course I would ask you to stay but … well … look at you.” The legendary Hollywood superagent reportedly made beaucoup enemies during her reign on earth, but scribe John Logan overlooks all that bile to pen an affectionate homage to a singular woman who loved the movie business back in the days when the movie business was still fun.
So. Bette. Is she still divine? Diviner than ever. And completely in her element, posed like a queen on the plump couch cushions of Scott Pask’s tastefully elegant set of the Mengers’ house in Beverly Hills.
She doesn’t appear to be an imposter, either. That thick mane of silver-blonde hair is Sue’s hair. The tinted glasses — hers. And if Ann Roth didn’t design that billowing aquamarine caftan for Sue, she certainly might have. But of course, it’s the attitude that completes the impersonation, that supreme self-confidence that allows her to shoot off her filthy mouth at Hollywood royalty — her good friends.
To put it more pithily: the casting of Bette Midler as Sue Mengers is genius.
The dating of the play is important. It’s 1981, when Sue is still on the game as powerhouse superagent. But not so many years off, she’ll be out of player position and watching the game from the sidelines. Having one of the smartest and quickest minds in Hollywood, she probably already knows what’s up ahead.
So Logan is already signaling that this won’t be one of Sue’s typical dinner parties. If we watch closely, there might also be portents of the fall of an empire, or at least, the changing of the palace guard. The first brick drops when she keeps eyeing the telephone and finally admits to be waiting for the Call. The call from her oldest and dearest friend, Barbra Streisand, who fired her earlier in the day.
Before the guests arrive, there will be other calls, other intimations of mortality. But for now, she’s content to sharpen her claws and dazzle us with her bountiful store of gossip, her wicked wit, her opinionated views and the story of her unorthodox life.
Some of her bon mots go for huge belly laughs. Discussing her marriage, she claims that she and her husband are a typical Hollywood couple. “On a good night we’re Nick and Nora Charles. On a bad night we’re Nick and Nora Charles Manson.” She shares the secret of her famously successful dinner parties: “Only invite movie stars.” Following her own advice, she admits, “My own mother couldn’t get in if she were standing outside in the rain.”
But here’s the real secret of those parties: “It’s all business. Everything in this town is business,” and by the time coffee is served, she’s landed one more job for one more client.
Not only is it all business, it’s all show business. (“Don’t talk to me about politics, science, sports, or animal husbandry.”) And never being up foreign politics, like Vanessa Redgrave. (“Is there anything more dreary than Cambodia? No one shoots a movie there.”)
But it’s not all fun and games and filthy stories. Once she starts going on about clients she honestly loves — Streisand, Ali McGraw, Julie Harris — a tender look softens her face and we realize that all those stories about her fierce loyalty to her friends are all true.
There will be betrayals before this party even begin, and there will be more after it ends. But for now, just let this great dame park her keister on her couch, puffing away on a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other, and tell you what she misses most about the old Hollywood. “We used to laugh more. Honey, we used to have fun.”